The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States just ruled that the manufacturers of “anti-bacterial” soaps must stop adding their key “anti-bacterial” chemical—triclosan—from all their products within one year. This same chemical (or similar) is used in liquid and solid soaps throughout Brazil, so we should see what the concern is.
For many years, public health groups have been asking for this move. These groups claim that these chemicals in soap cause more harm than good. In response, in 2013 the FDA notified the manufacturers to give proof that the chemicals were safe for human exposure, and that adding these chemicals made soaps perform better than soap without the chemicals.
The manufacturers submitted some studies, but the FDA ruled that their evidence was not convincing. They concluded that there may be long-term consequences health consequences, especially for children. Further, they were not convinced that “anti-bacterial” soaps performed any better than regular soap.
The ruling covers not only triclosan, the most common chemical used, but also 18 other compounds, like triclocarban, that fall into the same category. “Anti-bacterial” is a strong marketing term, that sells well to the public, so manufacturers have slowly added these chemicals to a wide variety of consumer products. Mouthwash, cutting boards, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, socks, toys, and even baby pacifiers have been penetrated with these compounds.
Dr. Rolf Halden, a scientist at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State Univeristy, and a top expert on the subject, expressed joy about the action of the FDA. He says “It has boggled my mind why we were clinging to these compounds… They had absolutely no benefit but we kept them buzzing around us everywhere. They are in breast milk, in urine, in blood, in babies just born, in dust, in water.”
Health consequences of chemicals in antibacterial soap
There is growing evidence that these chemicals, absorbed in our bodies, upset our hormonal balance. Animal studies have shown disruption in development of the reproductive organs. Triclosan can bind to hormone receptors that normally attach to estrogen, and there is concern these chemicals might stimulate the growth of breast cancers. In men, they may interfere with the production of healthy sperm. Children with high levels of triclosan have a higher risk of respiratory allergies.
Beyond these effects, the widespread use of anti-bacterial products are thought to contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. With these substances everywhere, bacteria mutate to become stronger so the chemicals won’t kill them. This means when you take antibiotics for a serious infection, that the antibiotics might not work as well as they did in the past. These chemicals may be changing the normal microflora of our intestines, which some research shows may lead to obesity.
Major manufacturers such as Johnson and Johnson have begun removing these chemicals from their consumer products, but they are still commonly found in Brazil. It might be smart to avoid soaps and similar products marked as “anti-bacterial”. New products are not necessarily the best.
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